ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Ever since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, communities across America have been sprucing up their roadways. They have, in fact, planted spruces, oaks and other trees to create a more appealing scene. But in some places, trees have run up against a powerful opponent: the billboard industry. Independent producer David Baron has another installment on our series Shifting Ground, Looking at America's Changing Landscape. Today, a story about 16 crape myrtles, four billboards and one road.
DAVID BARON: The road is U.S. Highway 192 in Osceola County, Florida. It's a six-lane strip of asphalt just outside Walt Disney World. Families come here to ride go-carts and roller coasters, buy T-shirts, and gorge themselves at all-you-can-eat buffets, play mini golf and take helicopter tours. But back in the 1980s, this tourist strip was losing business to newer, nicer roadways. Its image, well, it needed improvement.
Mr. HECTOR LIZASUAIN (Project Manager, BeautiVacation Project, Osceola County): It got its fair share of bad name.
BARON: Hector Lizasuain oversees Highway 192 for Osceola County.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: At one time, this place was considered tacky town, the failed Las Vegas. I think that's what drove this community to do something about that and change that.
BARON: What the community did was launch a beautification project. The road used to be exceptionally plain, lined by weed-filled ditches with no sidewalks, poor lighting. It was drab. So the property owners here voted to tax themselves $29 million to make the roadway safer and prettier.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: Look at it today. We have 10-foot sidewalks on both sides of the road. We have bicycle paths, well-lit bus shelters, information-filled kiosks. And that's not even mentioning the beautiful landscaping that we have out here.
BARON: That landscaping included 360 palms, 300 oleanders and 1,400 loquats, among other trees. But as the county made these improvements several years ago, some people were not happy.
Mr. CRAIG SWYGERT (Head, Orlando Division, Clear Channel Outdoor): We alerted them that look, time out, we've got a problem. We're not just going to allow this to continue in this way.
BARON: Craig Swygert heads the Orlando Division of Clear Channel Outdoor. His company owns billboards along Highway 192.
Mr. SWYGERT: The billboards were there first, and the trees started popping up, and they were done so in a way that they would block the view of the billboard, which, you know, we have a legal right there. So, you know, it's like, yeah, hey, we're going to give you a permit to be in business, but then we're going to take it away after you've already invested all this money.
BARON: Clear Channel and other billboard companies complained that beautification projects on a number of Florida roads threatened their business. So they lobbied the state legislature for protection. In 2006, lawmakers drafted a bill to outlaw the planting of trees on the public right-of-way in front of billboards. Each sign would be guaranteed a 500-foot-long view, uninterrupted by a single branch or leaf.
At the time, Randy Johnson was state representative for Osceola County along Highway 192. At a hearing, he spoke in favor of the bill.
State Representative RANDY JOHNSON (Republican, Florida, Osceola County): Those billboards are important. They feed lots of families. You know, this is a tourism corridor. Tourism depends on billboards, not on trees.
BARON: Osceola County officials vehemently disagreed. They argued that the trees were critical to the corridor's rejuvenation. But two years ago, the legislature passed the law. It went into effect just after the beautification project celebrated its completion. A few months later, Hector Lizasuain received a letter from state transportation officials.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: They were going to be sending crews out with inmates and stuff to go ahead and cut the trees down.
BARON: Thirty-eight trees were scheduled to be chainsawed because they stood in front of four billboards.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: I felt very - at that time - very betrayed, and it turned into like a schoolyard brawl.
BARON: The Orlando Sentinel ran a front-page article about the trees' impending demise. The public response was immediate.
Unidentified Man#1: This is the email that I sent to Representative Randy Johnson.
Unidentified Man#2: Here is the letter I wrote to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel.
Unidentified Woman#1: This is what I've posted on the Internet. What kind of ignorant person passed this law, is what I want to know.
Unidentified Man#3: Trees are beautiful. Billboards are ugly. Thanks to you, ugly wins.
Mr. PAUL ADSETT (Florida Resident): To Clear Channel, Craig Swygert and Randy Johnson, I say, have you no shame? Paul Adsett (ph), Orlando.
Mr. JAMES BROWSKI (Florida Resident): James A. Browski (ph), Indian Ridge Oaks Homeowners Association.
Ms. SANDRA BUTLER (Florida Resident): Sandra Butler (ph), Orlando.
BARON: The public outcry wasn't just about trees. It was about a larger issue. Who gets to control the view? Why should a private industry dictate what the public sees on a public way? Bill Jonson is on the board of the advocacy group Scenic America.
Mr. BILL JONSON (Board Member, Scenic America): The issue of billboard companies seeking to cut down public trees is something that's happening all over the country. And that's inappropriate, as far as I'm concerned, because they're public trees.
BARON: Several states now have laws that give billboard precedence over beautification projects. And those laws often leave local communities powerless to save their trees. At first, it appeared Osceola County was destined to lose its fight against Clear Channel. But as the negative publicity spread, Clear Channel said it was open to compromise. The county made an offer. What if it kept the offending trees pruned? Clear Channel said, OK then, most of the trees could stay.
But it took a hard line against 16 crape myrtles clustered in the median. Those trees, the company insisted, had to go. Back on Highway 192, Hector Lizasuain recalls his reaction.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: Well, you know, that's almost like someone coming in and saying you've got twins, and one of them is going to have to be sacrificed to save the other.
BARON: But he had no choice. And in October 2006, his crew cut the crape myrtles to stumps. He thought that was the end of the story, but he's since made a discovery.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: We'll cross here now.
BARON: He took me out to the median and pointed at some spindly stalks emerging from a bed of low-growing shrubs.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: And you can see right now, they're sprouting through the bed right now.
BARON: Wait, those are the crape myrtles that you cut down?
Mr. LIZASUAIN: Those are crape myrtles. Yes.
BARON: They're like Lazarus.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: Yeah.
BARON: They're rising from the dead.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: They are. They are.
BARON: The execution did not take.
Mr. LIZASUAIN: No, it did not. So they should be freed.
BARON: Lizasuain is quietly letting them live. His crew keeps the trees trimmed to a tiny size hidden in the shrubs so no one notices they're there. They are, one might say, political prisoners awaiting a revolution. Should those in power someday change the law back in favor of the trees, the crape myrtles will be ready to emerge and provide a canopy of flowers that, for now, remains illegal. For NPR News, I'm David Baron.